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Is it fair for city workers to use overtime to spike their pensions?

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY
In 2011, 43 Allentown firefighters retired before their labor contract expired, locking in more generous pensions benefits than the new contract would allow.

At the end of 2011, the city of Allentown had a problem. There was a gaping hole in its fire department.

No, not a literal hole. Forty-three of its firefighters retired at once. Not only did the city lose wisdom and experience. But suddenly, it owed millions of dollars more every year in retirement benefits it couldn't afford.

What drove these city firefighters out of their jobs?

A generous labor contract, awarded under previous mayor Roy Afflerbach, that was about to expire. The firefighters wanted to lock in their pension benefits before that contract became less generous.

John Stribula, the president of Allentown's firefighters union, retired in 2011.

Stribula says he loved being a firefighter. He still dreams about it, and his heart aches when he sees the other firefighters respond to emergencies without him. But the benefits were too good to pass up. 

Read the full version of this report at the website of Keystone CrossroadsThis is the part of a series of stories on Pennsylvania's municipal pensions, which are airing on WPSU this week. Keystone Crossroads is a new statewide public media initiative reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania's cities. WPSU is a participating station. 

Marielle Segarra was WHYY's Keystone Crossroads reporter. She reported for the multi-station partnership on urban policy, crumbling infrastructure and how distressed Pennsylvania cities are bouncing back. As a freelance radio reporter, her stories have also aired on Latino USA, WNYC, WBUR and other NPR member stations.
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